A familiar fable tells of a scorpion that asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is sensibly fearful of getting stung. But the scorpion is persuasive, pointing out that if he stings the frog, they will both sink into the water and die. Why would he do such a thing? So the frog agrees. Midway across the stream, the scorpion stings. The dying frog asks: Why? It’s my nature, the scorpion explains.
For our purpose here the frog is the Bancroft family and the scorpion is the charming Rupert Murdoch, who would very much like to own the Bancrofts’ shares in Dow Jones & Company and its jewel, The Wall Street Journal. Family members sensibly fear that he would misuse that paper’s journalistic power. Murdoch’s answer is that to damage the credibility of the Journal would be to destroy it. Why would he do such a thing?
You know the answer. For proof, you can read the wonderful 114-inch page-one piece in the June 5 Journal itself, which reported multiple examples all around the world demonstrating (again) that Murdoch’s “newspapers and other media outlets have made coverage decisions that advanced the interest of his sprawling media conglomerate, News Corp.”
The question for the Bancrofts is what to do about that. At press time some family members were exploring the creation of an agreement that would guarantee the Journal’s editorial independence. They know that an agreement structured for that very reason at London Sunday Times in the 1980s was briskly whacked by Murdoch. (“God, you don’t take all that seriously, do you?” he asked an assistant editor at the Times.) Thus, the Bancrofts would likely employ pricey lawyers to try to make a Dow Jones agreement invincible.
But Rupert has lawyers too. This is not a bad experiment in a world in which media are owned by companies like General Electric or by realtors like Sam Zell. But not with Murdoch. He has a record that proves that once he had some control he would readily find a way to sacrifice the Journal on the News Corp. altar. It’s his nature.
We appreciate that the Bancrofts have come to realize that Dow Jones needs a fresh direction. And it is easy for outsiders to ask people to walk away from a $5 billion offer. But this is their moment in history. We hope they find a way to keep this American treasure away from Rupert Murdoch, who will smile even as he raises the stinger.
The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.